Sermon preached by the Rev’d Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter’s-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, February 23, 2020 (Last Sunday After the Epiphany - Year A).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
If I remember correctly it was about one o’clock in the morning. I was finishing up some work on my desk at Trinity Church in Watertown, New York. But before I called it a day I picked up the latest copy of The Living Church, one of our Episcopal magazines. My eyes fell upon a small advertisement at the back of the journal. It called attention to an open position for a vicar at St. Peter’s-at-the-Light, Barnegat Light, New Jersey.
I had just announced my retirement from Trinity Church, thinking that Candy and I would settle into a new home we would build on 2.35 wooded acres of land we own near the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, where in a good winter the snowfall is between 200" and 300"! The ad in The Christian Century was lighthearted in nature, very pleasantly written and inviting. No surprise to me to find out later that exactly 301 priests responded to that ad! One might say that “the rest is history,” but not quite yet.
An interview was scheduled with the members of your Mission Committee. I knew that one of the questions I was sure to be asked was, “What do you think you can do to help our church grow?” Every Search Committee of every church (except maybe Trinity Church, Wall Street, which leases 6 million square feet of office space in Manhattan!) will ask that question of a priest candidate. The question really implies, “We need more people to pay the bills and do the work.”
I needed to know something of the demographics of Long Beach Island and Barnegat Light in a state I had never be in until I came for the interview. I looked up other churches on Long Beach Island. I had to be ready for that question. Discovering that there is another church in Barnegat Light I thought it would be helpful to get something of the picture of religious life here if I could talk with the pastor.
I got hold of Pastor John Pierce (a closet Episcopalian!) whom I discovered was into the 20th-something year of his ministry at Zion Lutheran. He ought to know! I asked. “Father Turner, it is tough,” he said, “considering the statistics. There are so few young families because housing costs are very high.” So, I was ready for the Mission Committee. Sure ‘nuf they asked me the question. I told them about my conversation with Pastor Pierce. I told them I was not optimistic. That’s not what a Mission Committee or Search Committee wants to hear! “But,” I hastened to add, “if we are to grow you are going to have to invite family members and friends who are unchurched, and if you can get them here I will try to make them feel welcomed, and encourage them to become a part of our community of faith.” Now that’s called personal evangelism, and everyone knows that Episcopalians are terrified of the “E word!” So, strike number one for me. But, God be praised, some of you sitting here this morning are here because a member or friend of St. Peter’s invited you!
Well, the conversation with the members of the Mission Committee continued. “What do you think of either of the two houses we own, would you choose to live in one of them?” Candy and I had talked about that prior to the meeting, having seen both houses. Our honest answer — or I should say Candy answered the question — “No.” Strike two.
Later in the interview I learned something about the financial structure of this church and its relationship to the Diocesan Investment Trust, and I know that our Treasurer at the time thought I was impertinent by virtue of some of the questions I raised. Strike three. Candy and I left the Committee and as we left she said to me, “Well, what do you think?” I honestly replied, “I really don’t think we’ll hear from these good people again!”
Meanwhile, an interview with the Vestry of St. Raphael’s Church, Ft. Myers Beach, Florida had been set up by the Deployment Officer of the Diocese of Southwest Florida. I had met and married Candy in southwest Florida. We had lived in Ft. Myers. We were quite familiar with Ft. Myers Beach, often going down to the sand to walk along the water’s edge barefoot, hand in hand, as we watched the thunderstorms moving out into Gulf at dusk after they had pounded Lee County earlier in the afternoon.
At the interview with the Vestry of St. Raphael’s I was given the call to serve as their next Rector. That caught me and Candy off guard because the interview schedule had indicated there would be a total of three question-and-answer sessions with the Vestry, and this was just the first one. I begged off response until we returned home to northern New York, telling them that Candy and I needed time to consider the call.
After a few days at home, I decided that I would confirm the call to Ft. Myers Beach. Shortly thereafter, your Senior Warden called. “Are you still interested in us?” she asked. That surprised me because I was convinced I would never hear from Barnegat Light, New Jersey again. “Yes,” I said, "but I need a little more time to think about this.” That was not true, of course, because as I’ve already told you I was going to confirm the call to St. Raphael’s Church. But, there was a “fly in the ointment.” My feeling for St. Peter’s. You see, I had told my spiritual director, “John, I am going to accept a call to a church in Florida, but for some reason it’s tearing me up inside knowing that I have to say ‘No’ to the Warden at St. Peter’s, and it doesn’t make any sense to me.” John said to me, “Don, maybe God’s trying to speak to you through that pain. Maybe you need to reflect and pray about what is going on in your mind and heart.” Well, as it is said, and I can say now, “The rest is history!”
My dear friends, I want you to focus upon the unrest that was going on in my mind and heart. I want you to consider seriously how God worked through my agonizing, my unrest, to bring to fruition what I know has been a rich, fruitful ministry which you, Candy, and I have shared for almost 15 ½ years. Right now there is some agonizing and pain in your minds and hearts regarding my departure now, when it seemed that I would not be “taking down the shingle” until this time next year.
Think about this seriously — and recall events in your own life: God works all things for good for those who love him. Even through the painful experiences. Candy and I celebrate — with some reservation, of course, because of our love for you — the next chapter in our lives. You can celebrate what is to come in the life of St. Peter’s if you continue to open your minds and hearts to God’s grace, and immerse your expectations for the future of this church in your love for each other.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Copies of Fr. Turner's sermons are always available each Sunday on the table in the rear of the Nave. He advises that you do not take a copy to follow him while he is preaching because he preaches from memory of the manuscript and often departs from the text, especially if he thinks of a good joke! Sermons are not lengthy. The Vicar had a Professor of Homiletics who told the class, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!"